Why everyone's talking about the Diners Club Card Elite

Back in September I was the first blogger to observe that the new Diners Club Card Elite, which earns 3 Club Rewards points per dollar spent at "grocery stores, supermarkets, drug stores, pharmacies and automobile fuel service stations when you pay at the pump," allows points transfers, according to Flyertalk, to Starwood Preferred Guest at the not-totally-unreasonable rate of 1250 Club Rewards points to 750 Starpoints.

Personally, I don't pay $300 annual fees, so I was a bit surprised to find that the Diners Club Card Elite was one of the most popular topics of conversation last weekend in Phoenix. That convinced me to take a second look at the card's value proposition.

Finding the right comparison

In my first back-of-the-envelope calculation, I compared the Diners Club Card Elite to the "old" Blue Cash, which turned out to be an unfortunately timely comparison, given the wave of Blue Cash shutdowns (and PayPal warnings!) that occurred in October.

It turned out that most folks I spoke with in Phoenix were actually comparing the Diners Club Card Elite not to a straight cash back card like Blue Cash, but rather to the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card, which earns 1 Starpoint per dollar spent.

This comparison is complicated by the fact that the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express and Diners Club Card Elite earn points, while their annual fees have to be paid in US dollars. What we need is a common point of measurement, which is happily provided, as usual, by the Barclaycard Arrival Plus MasterCard.

Since the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express earns just 1 Starpoint per dollar, and has no bonus categories (besides SPG properties themselves), anyone who is willing to manufacture spend on the card is already implicitly giving their Starpoints a value of at least 2.2 cents each by foregoing the same amount of spend on the Barclaycard Arrival Plus MasterCard.

Since the Diners Club Card Elite, in its extremely common bonus categories, earns 1.8 Starpoints per dollar spent, a user will break even when she spends, in bonus categories, that amount of bonused spend which generates the $235 difference in the annual fees between the Diners Club Card Elite and the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express.

That break-even amount, remarkably, is just $13,352. At that level of spend, a user will generate 40,057 Club Rewards points, which can be transferred to 24,034 Starpoints, or 10,682 more than with the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express. As shown above, those points are worth $235, the difference in the two cards' annual fees.


On this blog, I always try to go where the numbers take me, leaving at the door as much prejudice and superstition as possible. And that's what the numbers say: at quite low levels of bonused spend, the Diners Club Card Elite generates enough "excess" Starpoints to justify paying the annual fee, assuming you do, in fact, value Starpoints at 2.2 cents or more each.

But this analysis requires two big caveats. First, there are other cards which bonus grocery store spend, like the American Express Preferred Rewards Gold and Hilton HHonors Surpass, and the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards cards. Ironically, the $300 annual fee of the Diners Club Card Elite will pay the annual fees of all three of those cards ($175, $75, and $49, respectively). And that's a big problem with paying high annual fees: it's not that it's impossible to recoup the annual fee in value – of course it's possible. But it requires a commitment to doing so, at the expense of other points you may want or need over the course of the year.

The second caveat is that any comparison with the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest or Barclaycard Arrival Plus is inherently misleading, since those cards earn at the same rate regardless of the merchant, while the Diners Club Card Elite requires cannibalizing already-bonused grocery or drug store spend.

Unless, of course, your "old" Blue Cash card has already been shut down. In that case I think there's a clear argument for moving drug store spend, a cheap and plentiful, but now rarely-bonused, merchant category, to the Diners Club Card Elite.